Jenny Best sits down with David, the author of Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter
Q. What inspired you to write about “forgotten foods”?
For several years I’ve followed the local food movement, listening to discussions of food miles and hyper-local diets, of the importance of knowing your farmer, growing your own garden, and learning how to cook and enjoy a home meal. But what exactly are “local foods”? The Slow Food movement creates a wonderful opportunity to expand the conversation—to embrace regionally distinct varieties of fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains; rediscover heirloom varieties with unique flavors and stories; and breed new foods that express our creativity, region by region.
Q. Food and farming has gotten a lot of attention lately in the U.S. But “biodiversity” is not a word you hear a lot in the conversation. Why is biodiversity so important?
My biologist friends may laugh at the use of the word “biodiversity” to describe farming, but even within a relatively narrow range of crops we find significant variations. Choosing the right plant or animal for a particular set of growing conditions can lead to better disease and pest resistance, reducing the need for chemical use. It can also mean better drought tolerance, adaptation to temperature extremes, and improved flavor and culinary use. From the grower’s standpoint, diversifying plantings also brings resilience in the face of climate disasters, because a hailstorm that destroys tomatoes, or a heat wave that prevents corn from pollinating, can be offset by other successful harvests.
Q. We’ve lost thousands of apple varieties. What’s the most shocking loss of biodiversity you’ve encountered in your research?
I can’t say there’s any one loss that eclipses the rest to me. Instead it’s the transformation of vast stretches of farmland from diversified systems, filled with a range of crops with distinct traits, into monocultures of corn, wheat, or soy. This loss of biodiversity extends from the narrow range of crops and uniform genetics of the plants, to the disappearance of adjacent natural habitat, right down to the microflora living in the soil itself.
Q. In your book you talk about the need to preserve heirloom food varieties but also to develop and breed new foods. What’s the biggest challenge to these efforts? What can farmers do to support these efforts? And consumers?
I believe it’s not enough to look backward to rescue the best of the past, but that we need to embrace change and work with older foods to develop new lines. Plant breeding and animal husbandry are two of the oldest of human arts. I write about participatory breeding in my book, in which farmers and breeders work hand in hand to develop foods that meet specific needs, like disease resistance for organic production. This work faces a lot of obstacles, from lack of funding, to plant and animal patenting that restrains access to breeding material, to wariness from a public suspicious of science. My hope is that such efforts will continue to bring us foods bred in the best interest of growers and consumers alike, and that this will lead to higher yields, diminished reliance on pesticides, and delicious new flavors.
Q. Have you encountered particular heirloom varieties that you are especially attached to?
I’d garden for Black Winter mustard, Chateau Rose tomatoes, and Marina di Chioggia squash alone. Yet much of the pleasure of collecting heirloom foods is the many surprises I encounter along the way—foods like Gilfeather rutabagas that I’d never have imagined would have captured my heart. At the moment, though, nothing interests me quite like fruit trees, and especially antique American cider apples. Fermentation is my new frontier.
Q. Some people write off “heirloom” food varieties as overly expensive, fancy food. How do we bring flavorful and biodiverse foods to everyone, regardless of income level and access?
Several years ago I helped build a community garden in downtown Lawrence, Massachusetts, a densely urban city with little green space and some of the highest poverty rates in the country. The community was predominantly Dominican immigrants, many with farming backgrounds, and even before construction was complete they started planting herbs and vegetables from back home. To them these foods represented cultural identity and tradition as well as good eating. The truth is there’s nothing fancy about most heirloom foods. They originated in the hands of ordinary people leading ordinary lives.
It’s past time, in my opinion, to remember what the world looks like through the eyes of producers. As consumers we’ve forgotten this perspective, and the real value of good, clean, fair food.
Q. You’ve been a supporter of Slow Food for some time. What does Slow Food mean to you, and where do you see food culture in the U.S. heading?
I’ve been interested in the ecology of food and the rights of farmworkers since I first got involved with food production in the late eighties. I got the “clean” and “fair” part. Until Carlo Petrini came along, though, I gave the “good” part short shrift. It may be a very Italian idea that we can transform the world through pleasure, but what better way to make the world a better place? I’m willing to give it a try.
As far as where we’re heading, my hope is that Americans will embrace the home garden in the years ahead. When we grow some of our own food, we appreciate it in a new light.
Q. What are you currently growing and do you have any tips for those who want to grow their own food with limited space?
I grow a wide range of fruits, herbs, vegetables, flowers, and nursery plants. Some of these we sell at the farmers market, including fruits that I freeze and blend into smoothies. I plan to continue to expand this collection, with increasing focus on rare fruits.
There’s a lot of pleasure in growing even a few herbs in limited garden space. With raised bed planters you can produce greens and other vegetables. Blackberries or blueberries can thrive in a sunny corner of your yard, while espalliered fruit trees can run along the fences. It’s fascinating to think about the many ways good design can help us weave fresh, healthy food into our lives.
Q. What are your future gardening plans?
This past spring we purchased a 115-acre property in Pownal, Maine, a few minutes from LL Bean in downtown Freeport. Our goal is to transform this space into a sort of conservation center, with heritage orchards, gardens, trails, and a small commercial kitchen and cider house. We’re at work right now on the house and barn, and I’ll start the orchard by moving about 400 apple, pear, peach, cherry, and plum trees to the site this spring.